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The Hidden Social Housing Scandal: Exposing the Conditions of Britain’s Gypsy and Traveller Sites

‘Gypsies and Travellers are forced to live in areas that no other ethnic group would be expected to live’ – Katharine Quarmby reports

The Dale Farm site prior to eviction, a Romany Gypsy and Irish Traveller site in Crays Hill, Essex, in 2011. Photo: Michael Kemp/Alamy

The Hidden Social Housing ScandalExposing the Conditions of Britain’s Gypsy and Traveller Sites

‘Gypsies and Travellers are forced to live in areas that no other ethnic group would be expected to live’ – Katharine Quarmby reports

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Rats, foul odours from sewage and blocked drains, fears about air and noise pollution, dust, flooding and insects – a new investigation has revealed the bleak living conditions for Britain’s Gypsy and Traveller communities living on authorised sites.

These sites, mostly run by councils, are a health risk to their residents and many of their complaints are intractable due to the poor location of many Traveller sites.

Around a quarter of the UK’s 300,000 or so community members live on sites, with the rest living in bricks and mortar. 

In 2021, a Byline Times investigation exposed the poor location of many sites in England, showing that a third were within 50 metres of one or more A Road, motorway, sewage station, waste or recycling centre, industrial estate or railway line, with more than half within 100 metres – similar to the length of Wembley stadium. The pattern was confirmed in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with sites being particularly poorly located in Wales. 

Byline Times then sent Environmental Information Regulations (EIR) requests (and some linked Freedom of Information requests) to all councils in England, Scotland and Wales, as well as to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, which is responsible for the five open authorised sites in the country, to see what effect location had on environmental complaints from 2017 to 2021. 

The EIRs revealed a systemic picture of issues faced by Traveller tenants on permanent sites across the four countries.

167 councils which responded had sites, and nearly three-quarters of those (73%) had received environmental complaints covering 181 authorised sites. 

They ranged from frequent and recurring problems with rats, with more than half of councils which had received complaints confirming a vermin problem on sites. Other common issues were sewage and foul drainage, insect infestations, odour, noise, flooding and complaints about dust, noise and air pollution.

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Of the councils with sites, fewer than 10 had conducted any kind of pollution monitoring, whether that was air, noise or land. Many councils employed pest control officers to visit sites regularly, but due to locations near recycling centres, landfill and sewage, it is a hard issue to tackle.

A handful of councils, including Pembrokeshire, also reported that some sites were on contaminated land. 

One site, in Ealing at Bashley Road, which is near ongoing work to construct the HS2 line, has also reported vibration, air pollution, health and safety concerns and noise. Other sites across the UK also suffered from vibration from nearby industrial processes.

An Ealing Council spokesperson said: “Allegations or complaints of nuisance or other pollution based issues are investigated and actioned consistently across the borough. In addition to this, the council is engaged with major infrastructure works like HS2 to alleviate as much disruption and disturbance as possible to all residents living nearby, including the occupants at our permanent Traveller site at Bashley Road.”

Silverdale, a site near a landfill, Walleys Quarry, has reported years of rat problems, with nine complaints about odour in 2021 alone.

Simon Tagg, Leader of Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council, told Byline Times that the odour problems affected thousands of residents in the area: “We pushed the site regulator, the Environment Agency, to take decisive action and eventually became one the first authorities in the country to seek an abatement order for an EA-regulated site.” Odour problems are decreasing, he added. 

Five sites in Pembrokeshire, Wales, reported systemic problems with rats, flooding as well as concerns about contaminated land and pollution. Pembrokeshire County Council did not respond to a request for comment.

Trudy Aspinwall, team manager at the Travelling Ahead: Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Advice and Advocacy Service, said this investigation “provides hard evidence of the shocking environmental hazards and poor-quality standards, repairs and maintenance that so many people living on Gypsy and Traveller sites live with every day”.

“Local authorities in Wales are well aware of the environmental problems faced by Gypsies and Traveller living on sites – public sites that is for which rent and council tax are paid,” she added. “Residents are often simply ignored when they try to get improvements to their living environments. It’s a national disgrace and urgent action is needed, including an immediate programme of works with increased accountability to tackle these issues.”

A spokesperson for charity Friends, Families and Travellers said Byline Times’ findings “further highlight the failure of local authorities to provide socially responsible sites for Romany and Traveller communities – something we have known from our casework for a long time”.

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Rachel Cooper, director of development at Leeds Gate – a membership organisation for Gypsies and Travellers in West Yorkshire – told this newspaper that “Gypsies and Travellers are forced to live in areas that no other ethnic group would be expected to live” and that it is “heartbreaking to hear our young people talk about themselves in relation to the vermin and pollution they live alongside and the impact this has on their feelings of self-worth”.

She said the organisation would use the findings to continue its campaigns “to improve permanent site provision to enable Gypsies and Travellers to thrive as they deserve to”.

For Ilinca Diaconescu, policy and campaigns coordinator at London Gypsies and Travellers, “this investigation sheds light on the appalling marginalisation and neglect experienced by residents on local authority sites, leading to extremely poor living conditions and severe impacts on health”.

“Romany Gypsy and Traveller communities experience an accommodation crisis that goes beyond the chronic shortage of culturally suitable homes such as sites and stopping places,” she told Byline Times. “From our work with site residents across London we know that complaints are rarely listened to and addressed by their local authority landlords. We are calling on local authorities and the Mayor of London to take urgent action to improve site management and design, ensure that complaints are addressed quickly, and that Traveller site residents benefit from wider monitoring and mitigation of environmental hazards.”

Ultimately, this investigation raises one major question: are any other communities so systematically exposed to so many unrelenting environmental problems?

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